The ‘Walking Dead’ actress opens up about season seven’s “heartbreaking” finale, her last “death dinner” with Steven Yeun—and what women know about surviving the apocalypse.
If you think the real world has gone to hell, we invite you to take a tour of the world as depicted in television’s favorite zombie apocalypse. The seventh season of AMC’s The Walking Dead has been grim—and that’s saying something for a world where hordes of the undead are basically set dressing. Chalk it up to the addition of the show’s biggest, baddest Big Bad ever: the sinister survivor Negan, played by a gleefully sadistic Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Negan puts a fine point on an oft-central question of the series—one we’ve asked ourselves, oh, a couple of times since novelist Mary Shelley first conjured up Frankenstein: “So who’s the real monster here, anyway?” The answer he poses with relentless, cavalier brutality isn’t “us, but…” or “us, if….” It’s a grinning, “us, duh.”
But Lauren Cohan doesn’t view things that way. The actress has a skill for seeing the sunny side, even if she has to squint. On a cloudy day up in the Santa Monica Mountains, where Cohan is being photographed for BAZAAR.com, she’s the picture of placid poise in a gold and black Louis Vuitton dress. “I’m in the mind of another version of myself, which can be very steadying,” she says of wearing the shoot’s playfully sculptural outfits. This idea of steadiness is a quality Cohan tries to actualize in her character, Maggie. If the Southern farm girl-turned-fighter Cohan plays on The Walking Dead has remained a figure of stability since she first appeared in the show’s second season, it’s because Cohan sees Maggie as the eye in a storm. As the show’s survivors run from place to place, beating back threat after escalating threat, Maggie has become a touchstone for humanity and pragmatism in an increasingly ruthless narrative.
The ability to project such reliability comes from Cohan’s own itinerant childhood—the now 35-year-old was born in New Jersey, spent a year in Georgia, returned to New Jersey, then moved with her family to the UK as a teenager. The English accent stuck, and so did an aptitude for laying down roots in new soil. “It’s interesting for me to play to a hopeful feeling in the middle of tragedy,” says Cohan. More than perhaps any other character in the series, Maggie has seen tragedy not at the hands of flesh-eating zombies, but of flesh-and-blood humans. A recap, not for the faint of heart: her father is decapitated by the power-mad “Governor” of another group of survivors; her younger sister is accidentally shot dead by yet another wannabe despot; and her husband Glenn (played by fan favorite Steven Yeun) had his skull treated like silly putty by a baseball bat-wielding Negan in this season’s gruesome and controversial premiere. So what was that about hope?
Cohan points to a scene in a recent episode, in which Maggie and Daryl (Norman Reedus) clear the air around Daryl’s guilt over being a bystander (and by provoking Negan, an instigator) in Glenn’s death. Fans appreciated the scene, which they saw as a much-needed emotional pressure-release valve. It was the kind of scene that Cohan lasers in on, too. “Given how guarded [Daryl] is, it was really beautiful to get to take down that wall,” she says. “I think it’s important for the audience to see how the characters lean on each other and how they work through things together.” That’s where Cohan sees the real stakes—”when we stop running.”
Though the show is roughly guided by the ongoing comics that spawned it, Cohan doesn’t read ahead anymore. Mild spoiler alert: In the comics, Maggie grows into the mold of a leader—later asserting more control at the “Hilltop,” for those keeping track of the post-apocalyptic intrigue. “She’s always grown in tandem with other people. She grew in tandem with Glenn. Now it’s all on her more,” reveals Cohan, before quickly adding: “I hate saying anything that implies, ‘Oh yeah, in the middle of season eight when I’m still alive…,’ because I really don’t know if I will be. But as a viewer, I am excited to see that arc being realized.”
For the record, that doesn’t mean that losing Yeun, her onscreen husband, wasn’t a gut punch to the cast. Cohan calls his “death dinner,” the cast’s traditional send-off to their fallen, bittersweet. “It’s funny when I stop to think about calling them death dinners. It’s such a frequent part of our lingo that I forget how absurd it is, like spying on your own funeral,” she says. “We’ve had some of our best nights together at them. There’s always a lot of tears, but we also have bonfires and play games and get to tell the family member leaving how much we love them—and, you know, completely embarrass them.”
Yeun and Michael Cudlitz, who were both killed off in spectacularly gory fashion during the season’s premiere, had “one of the best hurrahs,” recalls Cohan. “All the girls got together to plan. I booked a karaoke machine because Steve is a great singer, and especially good at hyper-sincere karaoke performances.” Danai Gurira, who plays katana-wielding Michonne, suggested they perform his favorite—Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” “So, as you do, we dressed as the Backstreet Boys-meet-Abraham [Cudlitz’s camo-clad character] and reenacted the music video…without the tarmac.”
In the post-Glenn plot line, Maggie, who’s pregnant with his child, shows even greater independence, following a theme that runs through several of The Walking Dead’s female characters: a rally cry that says, underestimate us at your own peril. Carol (Melissa McBride) routinely pantomimes helplessness in front of strangers to avoid conflict, despite having a blackbelt in badass. Rosita (Christian Serratos) developed a strategy of becoming close to the men around her, playing the damsel in distress while quietly learning and honing each of those men’s survival skills for her own arsenal. In recent episodes, Maggie has had to stand up to the Gregory, the bumbling leader of the peaceful Hilltop commune (played by Xander Berkeley as a kind of post-doomsday Michael Scott, with a knack for making Cohan crack up during takes). “These women are smart not to flaunt their strengths right away. They think, ‘While you were looking in the other direction, we were listening and learning,'” says Cohan of a trope she believes rings true for many women today. “We pay attention and fortify ourselves.”
Cohan considers the women—and the men—of The Walking Dead to be feminist characters, largely because “the physical and emotional qualifications to survive an apocalypse are naturally equalizing,” she says. “Knowing poisonous berries from nonpoisonous berries, being able to jump start a car, keeping your cool under pressure, having the Spidey-sense to stab a zombie in the brain just in time. Our characters are defined by their merits, not their gender. It makes me proud when mothers tell us that their daughters look up to the women on our show.”
Cohan believes that even after seven seasons, a show about decapitating bloodthirsty corpses does have something to say about the world, and humanity, as a whole. “I look at it all as selflessness versus selfishness,” she says of the show’s most basic tension. “That conflict is representative of the world at any time. We’re always grasping to feel safe. Ultimately, some people feel safe through love or family or community. Some people through exerting control.” After six years of fielding questions about how she’d plan to survive the end of the world, Cohan has had time to wax philosophical about strength in numbers. “Some people don’t operate in that way; they can’t understand how much strength comes from being compassionate and lifting other people up.”
If the show continues to hew somewhat to the stories mapped out in the comics, the finale (airing Sunday, April 2) will be big and bloody. But it’s not surprising that Cohan’s focus is elsewhere when teasing the season’s endgame: “You’re certainly in for a lot of emotion,” she says after having a quick rhetorical debate with herself over whether or not to go as far as calling the finale “poetic.” Eventually, she lands on describing it as “incredibly bittersweet, beautiful, and heartbreaking.” Leave it to Cohan to cut to the bone and find some inner beauty.
I’ve loaded the additional photos from this beautiful shoot in the gallery.